Today, the Ministry of Justice released a set of statistics from the Family Courts for the first three months of this year. The figures show a 14% growth in the number of started cases as compared to the seasonal dip in the previous quarter. Still, the new cases are down 6% in comparison to January – March of last year, likely in anticipation of the new divorce process that was enforced in April 2022.
It is obviously positive that spouses are no longer forced to set out horrible statements about their partners to end a marriage. Unfortunately, the new law will not have any impact on resolving children or financial matters, and that is where the real problems are.
To be fair, the statistics for the stated period do show a decrease in financial remedy applications (16%). However, this may only be temporary and, in any event, that slight drop in one quarter does not change the underlying problems.
Resolving issues about children and sorting out financial claims is often a much bigger, traumatic and difficult part of ending the marriage. They are all dealt separately from the divorce and are not necessarily dependent on one another. The divorce can be completed before anything else is resolved, although it is not always wise to do so and requires advice.
I appear regularly in the divorce courts of the Southeast, having been practicing family law for over 30 years. I have witnessed a marked deterioration in the system. It is falling apart if we are not already there. And delay is endemic.
Successive governments have decimated the court system, reducing the number of courts, full-time judges and other staff, obliterating legal aid and reforming the divorce process. As a result, almost the whole of the Southeast, including notably London, is expected to issue all divorce cases in Bury St Edmunds, in Suffolk.
I cannot speak for other parts of the country, but in the Southeast delay in the court process is now so bad that lawyers frequently advise clients to partially opt out of the system and engage in arbitration. For those who can afford it arbitration is much speedier and can be cheaper in the long run. Even then arbitration awards must be sanctioned by the courts, but it is still much quicker than having to wait for a court hearing.
I used to advise clients that an uncontested divorce would take about 6 months. Now I say a year. Starting a finance claim or asking the court to determine a children issue leads to the case being transferred to a different court. They are rarely heard together. I have also been involved in numerous cases where the courts have cancelled hearings at the very last minute.
But it doesn’t have to be like this. There is also an option of alternative dispute resolution, including mediation, collaborative law and the old-fashioned practice of negotiating around a table. These can be cheaper, quicker and most importantly far less stressful ways of ending a marriage.
So I hope you will forgive me if I don’t get too excited about the change in the divorce process. There is so much more to be done.